When West Virginians think about the opioid crisis, the analysis tends to drift in a few understandable directions. Death tolls from overdoses, obviously, are a huge part of the picture, as is treatment and rehabilitation. There’s the law enforcement aspect of stemming the tide of illicit drugs distributed on the streets.
And, of course, there are the millions of pain pills shipped to the Mountain State and throughout Appalachia, largely blamed for starting the whole mess.
One thing that doesn’t get as much attention is cost. Not the cost in lives, or the cost of recovery or even the cost to society, but the literal, dollars-and-cents cost the epidemic has placed on families, taxpayers and governments.
It might seem tacky to discuss such a thing. Then again, when Huntington rolled out its harm-reduction program several years ago, one of the statistics it used to help the public understand the scope of the problem was the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to treat someone with hepatitis C — a blood-borne illness running rampant in West Virginia because of shared, contaminated needles used to inject drugs like heroin and fentanyl — for the rest of that patient’s life.
More recently, Al Marino Inc., a Charleston company that does plumbing, HVAC and electrical work, is suing 18 pharmaceutical companies claiming the opioid problem caused small businesses like it to pay outrageous premiums for health insurance. According to the lawsuit, health care expenses for West Virginians climbed by an average of 5.8 percent each year between 1991 and 2014, while insurance premiums hiked at a corresponding 5.7 percent per year from 2001 to 2014 — they heyday of pill mills.
Attorneys for Al Marino Inc., who are seeking class-action status, argue that “insured patients with opioid abuse or dependence diagnoses cost health insurers more than average patients, in West Virginia and nationwide.”
Whether the lawsuit has merit or not is for the court to decide, but there is plenty of evidence that painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone were marketed in a misleading way, leading to scores of addicts who later turned to even more dangerous substances, like heroin, to avoid withdrawal and feed their addiction. It’s not unreasonable to think a downturn in overall health connected with opioids would lead to a rise in insurance costs. It’s just another ripple effect of a crisis that harms so many more than just the people using the drugs.
That’s why government agencies and communities across West Virginia need to use all the tools at their disposal to stem not only drug use, but the health problems that threaten addicts and the greater community. Even the most callous individual, who thinks all drug offenders should be locked away, whether in a jail cell or through community marginalization and shunning, should be aware they are still footing the bill for this, one way or another.